It’s hard to find new holiday-themed picture books that really stand out, but Jon Agee has done it this year with Little Santa, which answers the question: What was Santa like as a child? Readers also find out what happens when Santa’s family, miserable from the cold temps of the North Pole, declares they want to move to Florida. It’s a funny and entertaining tale, featuring Agee’s signature minimalist cartoon work and what the official starred Kirkus review calls “polished prose.”

I’ve been a fan of Agee’s work over the years, so once I snagged him for a short Q&A, it was hard to narrow my questions. I’m glad this Santa biographer could take a break to chat.

How many drafts did Little Santa go through?  

Four or five. I got to thinking about Santa as a child—not something I do on a regular basis—and my first thought was how miserable it would be living in the North Pole. I imagined a large, dreary family, sitting around the fire at the end of each day, moaning, sneezing and sniveling. It seemed like the ideal scenario for a fresh-faced, young Santa, the one child who absolutely adores year-round ice and snow.  

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The first line I wrote cracked me up. “In the North Pole, in a little cabin, lived Mr. and Mrs. Claus and their seven children, Larry, Mary, Willy, Billy, Zoe, Joey, and Santa.” It kind of summed up the story. Oddly enough, there was a later version in which Santa was an only child and yet another version where he gets caught in a blizzard and camps out in a cave. Somewhere along the line, I thought it would be perfectly plausible—and funny!—if everybody decided to move to Florida.

And you know the rest of the story.

Tell me what you love about working with watercolors.  Little Santa

I mostly use gouache, which is an opaque watercolor. I like the variety of tones and textures you can get—and the immediate results. My pictures are carefully composed, but when I start painting the color, shapes and line, there’s no fidgeting. It’s direct and spontaneous.

And if it doesn’t look right—argh!—I start all over.

Your first book was published in 1982, and you've been making books since then. In your opinion, which years were the picture book's best years, in terms of publishing, artistry, collaboration, etc.?

Hard to say. I used to think the picture book’s best years were in the ’60s and ’70s, when there was a burst of innovation in design and subject matter, and Sendak, Ungerer, Lionni, Munari, Fischer, et al. were at the top of their game. But then some of my favorite picture books (Babar, for one) were written well before that.  

Meanwhile, I have great memories of the early ’80s, when publishing was a quieter, slower, leaner business, and the editorial staff still held reign over sales and marketing. I was a complete unknown, and yet I could meet face-to-face with editors, like Frances Foster and Margaret McElderry. Or receive inspiring rejection letters from Walter Lorraine and Gordon Lish.

Today, all that has changed, but I look at the current books being produced and there seems to be just as much innovation and variety.

What contemporary artists (picture book or otherwise), if any, inspire you?

In current picture books, I’ll get in line with all the fans of Jon Klassen. This is Not My Hat was brilliant. (I was raving about it before it won the Caldecott.) He makes striking images, has a great sense of color and shape, and his writing is as lively as his illustrations. Also, I love the way he’s found a subtle balance between computer-generated and hand-painted imagery.

And I think he’s only 12 years old.

I’m always happy to see another John Burningham book. He must be in his 80s now. [In 2009] it was the wonderful It’s a Secret! There’s more life in his messy, sketchy watercolors than in most of the other stuff out there.

Can you talk a bit about how Maurice Sendak influenced you and helped jump-start your career, which you mention at your website?

I met Maurice back in 1987 at a printing plant in New Jersey, when I was on press for The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau. He saw a sheet from the book, liked it and said:  “You must be a fan of André Hellé or Edy LeGrand.” I’d never heard of them.

Days later, at the New York Public Library I discovered that I’d been channeling two celebrated art-deco illustrators from the early 1900s. It was a connection only Maurice could have made.

His influence on me (and many others) was huge in that he not only created classic picture books, but he spoke so passionately and eloquently about the importance and integrity of this unique genre. The bar was raised higher because of him.

                  Little Santa Spread

What’s next?

I’ve never done a series or a sequel, but there is a chance that I might revisit Santa. There are some very entertaining possibilities if he visits his family in Florida.

I’m working on another palindrome project—a graphic novel, where the dialogue in each frame is palindromic. It begins with a guy named Don, who makes wonton soup and is very eager to share it with the community.  But, as you discover, in a palindromic world when you offer somebody “wonton,” the answer is always going to be “not now.” The story, no surprise, is a little surreal, but it’s completely coherent—or at least that’s what I’m striving for.

Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.